The silence was oppressive, even more than the roof of the tunnel close overhead. Grayson was glad for the scrape of his boots on the stone, the cadence of his heartbeat, the creak of his armor. For a fleeting moment he thought to hum a marching tune, to dampen the ringing in his ears, but the tunnels twisted the notes weirdly before he got through a measure. They came back to him as a different melody, thin and eerie. At first he thought the Songbirds must be singing, half a mile back in the Hall of the Heavens, to while away the time. But the melody was coming from the black coil of tunnel ahead, and growing closer with each step Grayson took. He was not a man easily unnerved, but as the notes budded into words, twining around Grayson like a clinging vine, he found it harder and harder to keep his hand from his knife.
Starling, my darling, the Temple is falling
Pyre-smoke spills in the sky,
and who should come creeping, with nary a greeting,
but a man with a life made of lies?
"Who's there?" Grayson called, and his voice scattered the melody into nothing. The silence pressed against Grayson's ears, furry and heavy, and the darkness throbbed outside his lantern. "Show yourself!"
For a full minute Grayson stood waiting, and then another, but the music was gone, as was its maker. In its absence something brushed Grayson's face, only the tiniest stirring of air, cool and fresh. Somewhere ahead of him there was an opening, and a large one. His heart rose. It was possible he was close to a main passage, perhaps one that bordered on some Undercity tenement. Unscrupulous landlords were known to knock down backing walls to expand their holdings, while those without permanent housing made themselves comfortable squatting among the dead. Grayson had probably heard some old soul looking for a place to sleep, and had terrified him with a strange light and a voice from the depths.
It was good reasoning, Grayson thought, but it did nothing to rid him of the cobwebs prickling over his skin. The singer's choice of words had been a little too familiar for comfort. But if there was danger in the tombs, beggars or robbers or worse, he would root it out before it threatened his charges. Kestrel's knife bare in his hand, he dove forward into the dark.
The tunnel spilled open a few yards ahead, turning into a long, vaulted chamber lined with epitaphs. Grayson's lamp, long confined to smaller space, spread its light as far as it could, touching dimly on ornate crypts. Grayson started, thinking he had intruded on a room full of sleeping men. But the figures in repose upon the biers were made of stone, their features cracked and dusty, their coverlets of cold alabaster. This too was a tomb, but a tomb made to mimic a warrior's hall, with shields painted into the plaster, and braziers in the shape of a twist of spears at an encampment.
Beneath Grayson's boots, a large mosaic was full of cavorting horses, their riders wearing circular gorgets, a black-haired swordsman at their lead. Grayson swept his foot over the writing, clearing away years of undisturbed dust. The lettering he uncovered was not Vallish, or even the tongue of ancient Hasafel. It was the language of the people of Antigus, and it had been laid down by those forced by the lash to speak it in lieu of their own. Yet there was no grudge in the use of it here. The men in the crypt had been of Antigus' clan, they had spoken his language, but they had been buried as men of Valos. Grayson's grasp of the glyphs was tenuous; the language had been deliberately forgotten by many. But he knew the name in the center of the mosaic, the one above the dark-haired horseman, the same one carved deep upon the threshold of his ancestral home.
Grayce, son of Greisil, whose sword was God's, for Alveron and his Kin.
Grayson stood in the Hall of the Horsemen, burial place of the first Godswords, and the tomb of his Patriarch. For some time he was too dumbfounded to move. Only the spluttering warning of his lamp sent Grayson out of his reverie. He walked past the crypts to the side, their names sparkling at the corners of his vision. At the center dais, he set his lantern down at the foot of Grayce's tomb. It was a huge rectangle of marble, its sides engraved with images from Grayce's life. Grayce himself was carved in repose on the lid, the rigid locks of his hair flowing over his stone pillow. He was missing his nose and three of his fingers. The hilt of his sword had once been broken off, but it had been replaced in its socket, only a little loose now for its misadventure.
Grayson looked down into the face of his ancestor, feeling he should say something. The air was impatient, expectant. Grayson had not yet sorted it out when someone else spoke for him, a mocking sing-song that hardly suited the occasion.
No flowers brought for fallen knights?
Indeed, it is a sorry sight.
Your shame and lamp alone you bear
No garlands for the sleepers here
I would have thought you'd know your place
Oathless, empty, and once fa Grayce.
The last line of the song breathed itself out against his ear, as close as a lover's sigh. He whirled; there was nothing there but a seething ring of darkness pressed up against the contours of Grayce's tomb.
"I do not discourse with shadows!" Grayson shouted, louder than he meant to. His voice echoed over and over again in the vault, fleeing down the halls. "Show yourself! How do you know who I am?"
His answer came back to him on his own echoes, now far in the distance beyond the chamber door. It was a new melody, no less sinister. And yet the voice was sweet, as sweet in its way as the Dove's, or as the new mother's over her sleeping babe's cradle. It was a Temple Bird's voice, but wilder. The singer was a man cut for his music, and his song slid like a knife-edge down Grayson's spine.
Oathless blade, as Grayce's was, the day that Heaven fell.
Nameless knight for third of Doves, drowned deep in Valnon's hell.
Why come you here? What do you seek
Among these sleeping bones?
Or would you bid these mute mouths speak
Of dust, and dark, and stone?
"Your tricks do not impress me," Grayson retorted, to the not-empty-enough crypt. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Then you are a fool, Nicholas fa Grayce."
The voice came from behind him again; Grayson turned to face it. There, perched on Grayce's tomb, was the singer. He was older than the Songbirds, but Grayson reckoned him to be younger than Kestrel. His body was as lean as a soul marker's, bare to the waist, his hair black and chaotic as it tumbled past his shoulders. Around his neck and wrists were masses of necklaces and bracelets, glinting with cheap glass beads and fragments of chain, oyster-shells polished until they shone like pearls. He wore no sword at his belt, only ragged silks in grays and lavenders, but his fingers were tipped in cruel, sharp curls of silver, like talons. In them he cradled the broken sword-hilt of Grayce's effigy. His trappings jangled like a troupe of belled jugglers as he leapt down from the tomb and into the shaking circle of lamplight, and yet Grayson had not heard the least whisper of his approach, only his singing.
"Who are you?" Grayson demanded. "And I want an answer, not a riddle-ballad."
"I am called Starling," he announced, dropping Grayce's sword hilt back into its socket, where it landed, perfectly centered, with a dull explosion of sound. "Guardian of the dead, singer of songs, finder of lost things." He bowed, with a flourish of claws and rags and unkempt hair, and tilted a razor-edge smile at Grayson. "And you--are lost."
"I can find my way back to the Hall of the Heavens." Grayson kept his knife high. Starling was unarmed, but he looked like a madman, and Grayson did not care for the claws he wore. They stirred a memory in the back of Grayson's mind. Hadn't he seen Rouen wear them once? Yes, years ago, on Saints Night. Rouen had had sung the Lay of Hasafel in a freezing midnight sanctuary, with all the lights in the doused save for one shivering candle. He had worn archaic braids and silver bird-claws, as Thali would have done the night he sang Heaven's justice down. Songbirds did not usually wear the talons, as they were a holy weapon of old, but the singers in the Hasafel's Temple had been trained in their use, long before the coming of the sea.
"Did I say you did not know the way out of the tombs?" Starling tossed his head in contempt. "No, I said that you were lost. Your ship is sinking fast, you cannot bail out the entire sea. Your past seeks to overcome you, the water is rising. You cannot fight it as you are. You do not even know who you are."
"I know who I am," Grayson answered, banishing memories of Rouen until they were drowned as deep as the lost city of Hasafel. "I am Nicholas Grayson, and I seek a way out of the tombs."
"For you and for your charges left behind," Starling said in a gentle reminder, as though the Songbirds were a hat Grayson had forgotten to put on before going out. "You are not alone, I know. I've watched you. You and your little flight of lost birds."
Kestrel's knife flicked upwards to Starling's jaw. To his credit, the man did not flinch. "How much do you know of them?" Grayson demanded.
"More than there is time to sing," Starling answered, with a little shrug. "But save your knives and threats. The price of my song is high; I will not sing for my enemies."
Grayson mulled this over, wondering if that meant Starling would not tell anyone he had seen the Songbirds. Grayson's task was too important for maybes. He would have to ensure Starling's silence, one way or another.
"Ahh," Starling said, watching Grayson's face. "And now you are thinking of becoming my enemy. That is unwise, even for a fool like you. Would you make harm when you could have help?" Starling's sharp fingertip traced over the carved letters on Grace's sword, pulling up tufts of dust and making a grating sound on the stone.
Grayson studied the man's rags, slowly lowering the knife. There was careful deliberation in his choice of ribbon and trinkets, Grayson could see that. "You sport the colors of the Dove," he said. "Do you hold him dear?"
"Do you?" Starling's mouth quirked up in a wry smile.
"If you do," Grayson pressed, "then you should aid me and my companions."
"Colors can deceive. A canny wolf wears stolen fleece, and lies low unseen in the fold." Starling tilted his head to study Grayson, as calculating as a raven. His fingers drummed along the edge of Grace's tomb, tapping out a melody only he could hear. "Whose colors do you claim, Nicholas fa Grayce? Those of the Lark you lost? Or of the Dove that needs you?"
"I no longer have any right to that name." Grayson wasn't even sure how Starling knew to ask the other questions, much less how to go about answering them. "It was forfeit, along with--"
"No man can take a name from another," Starling interrupted. "No man can force a name on one who does not wish to keep it for himself. Even Songbirds choose to be what they are, they are not simply chosen. Hide behind your banishment if it pleases you, but do not make so bold as to deny your birthright at the very feet of your ancestor. Not even the dead could stay mute at such offense."
"I meant no offense. It is for my offense that I no longer have my name--"
"No!" Starling made an abrupt gesture, his pointed fingers slicing through the air. "Your lack of honor is more honorable than those who kept theirs. Ask the Temple black-bird who cast you out. He fears you. He remembers. He knows the truth. You have let him name you: Grayson, sell-sword, no one. What name would you have your Dove call you? Beloved Godsword, as Grayce was to Alveron? Or do you call yourself unworthy, and so doing give your Dove a common blade with no more loyalty than a whore's bought affection? Is that all you can offer your Dove?"
Grayson felt his defenses shuddering, as they had in the wake of Willim's Evensong. There was a music in Starling's voice even when he was not singing, and it bit deep into Grayson's scars, making them as fresh as new wounds. "He is not my Dove," he said, and could not look at the sleeping face of his ancestor.
Starling arched one black brow. "Then whose Dove is he?"
Grayson wasn't sure how to answer that. "He... he is Valnon's Dove--"
"Valnon's Dove!" Starling spat, his eyes suddenly blazing. His claws shrieked down Grace's effigy. "What does Valnon know of Doves? She has broken them all. If you would see this one safe to his destiny, he will need the sword of Grayce himself to shield him. Can you draw it? Are you worthy?" Starling's hands closed over the stone sword on the tomb, marble fractured with time. The winged hilt was in his hand, his fingers twined around the chipped remnants of Grayce's.
"Grayce's sword has surely gone to dust by now," Grayson said. "And that one you hold is no use to the living. I did not come here to--"
"I don't give a single bastard's damn for why you think you came, fa Grayce." Starling vaulted over the tomb and caught Grayson's knife-hand in his armored fingers. Grayson could not wrench it away. He was held as much as his blade was, pinned by the cold light of Starling's eyes. Everything else seemed to dim around him, swallowed whole by the tomb's increasing darkness. "My charge here is a higher thing than your mercenary pride. Would you save your Dove? Would you save yourself? Grayce knew his duty." Starling's eyes flashed, he lifted the heavy stone hilt high above Grayson's face. "It is time you knew yours."
The lamp went out.
* * *